Saturday, November 21, 2015

The Success of John Mayer with Dead and Company

Fare you well, Fare you well
I love you more than words can tell
Listen to the river sing sweet songs
To rock my soul
--Robert Hunter, Jerry Garcia

As we stood in the upper half of Madison Square Garden last Saturday and listened to Bob Weir and pop-star-turned-deadhead, John Mayer, sing those words in the newly formed Dead and Company, a realization came over me about the power of the Grateful Dead’s music. The initial attraction, staying-power, and cult-like following of the Grateful Dead comes from Jerry Garcia’s ability to transcend both personal and musical ego and allow the music to grow out of genuine emotional sentiment. In those special moments of “Morning Dew,” “Stella Blue,” “Wharf Rat,” or a dozen others, Garcia’s voice becomes so plaintively raw and pleading that you feel as though you’re not only seeing through the public mask that adorns us all, but into the heart of a man yearning to find freedom and redemption through public musical confession. So much of today’s popular American music comes not from real people, but from the carefully crafted characters they play on and off stage; yet Garcia and the Grateful Dead became one of the most successful bands in the world by peeling away those false layers year after year in front of thousands of fans, until there was little left other than the song...and maybe a drug addiction or two.    

There used to be a time when art, literature, and music could be openly based around sentiment. A person’s raw emotion had the power and legitimacy to drive a song or a story. Now, with our every waking minute being consumed by the hyper-industrialized process of profit driven media commercialism, sentiment has fallen out of favor, replaced by the protective mental armor of Irony and Cynicism. The Millennial-driven multimedia world thrives on an outward display of attitude and hipness. Any notion of inwardness or sentiment is seen as weakness by naivete. Author David Foster Wallace wrote, “What passes for hip cynical transcendence of sentiment is really some kind of fear of being really human, since to be really human is probably to be unavoidably sentimental and na├»ve and goo-prone and generally pathetic.”

Photo by Katie Friesema

The Dead and Company consists of original members Bob Weir, Mickey Hart, and Bill Kreutzmann, along with Allman Brothers bassist Oteil Burbridge, pianist Jeff Chimenti, and pop-star John Mayer on guitar--essentially playing the sacred parts of Jerry Garcia. The genuine confusion as to why three of the remaining members would tour with John Mayer has suddenly been replaced with questioning why is this the most successful incarnation of the remaining members in the last 20 years. To attempt to answer this “why,” you have to be willing to dig deep into our complicated and mysterious relationships with music, art, popular culture, expectations, and biases. It is almost the perfect storm for music lovers to confront why and how we love music and how much power it has in our identities.

When Bob Weir announced they would be doing a major tour with Mayer on guitar, there wasn’t any of the emotional backlash that occurred with Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio playing the final Chicago shows in July. (Those were the final shows that included all four living members of the GD; original bassist Phil Lesh has bowed out of any further tours.) Instead of the passionate and heated online debates, fans seemed to react to the announcement with a mix of shock, disappointment, and a collective eye roll. The band and music they had dedicated so much of their lives to was going to tour with a guy who had spent years as celebrity tabloid fodder. But when the first shows happened and people listened to the recordings, everything changed. There was a passion and buoyancy in the music that had not been heard since the 70s and 80s.

After attending one show and listening to a half dozen others, I believe that Mayer’s success is based around his natural inclination to find and share the deep emotional content that Garcia brought to the music. His ability to soulfully connect to the music of the GD is also, ironically, the same quality that made him famous in the female pre-teen pop world by writing songs such as “Dreaming with a Broken Heart,” “Slow Dancing in a Burning Room,” “Daughters,” and “I Don’t Trust Myself with Loving You.” The only sin greater than expressing sentiment is doing it for pop-culture fame. Our mental armor of cynicism creates a distrust of anything that is both popular and sentimental. It can be one, but it can’t be both--or so we tell ourselves.  

Photo by Tim Johnson
In the 20 years since Garcia’s death, the remaining members have formed many incarnations with the who’s who of rock guitarists: Warren Haynes, Jimmy Herring, John Kadlecik, Trey Anastasio, and Derek Trucks. I will argue, however, that Mayer is the most successful by a long shot. There is something within Mayer that allows him to wear the heavy cloak of the legacy of the GD while not losing his own personality. It’s the unique mix of tradition and youthful energy that makes the spirit of the music sound more alive than any other time in the last two decades. He plays with the technicality of Trey and Jimmy, the soul of Warren, and the creativity of Trucks. Most importantly, he also plays with the same deep musical sentiment that made us all fall in love with Jerry Garcia in the first place.

--Brian Paul Swenk

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Tuesday, November 17, 2015

We tell ourselves "Love Wins" after the Paris attacks. I wish it would.

26 state governors are refusing to help the refugees. Their excuse is the Paris attacks, but that's bullshit. They were determined to hate those refugees no matter what happened.

Those refugees are guilty of the three worst sins in the eyes of many:

1. Poor
2. Need Help
3. Have Dark Skin

As a nation that worships wealth we confuse money for virtue.

It's why a poor hispanic kid will do more jail time for a bag of weed than any Wall St exec will do for defrauding their customers and crashing the world economy.

It's why if a poor black kid is killed by a cop we say "He must have done something wrong"

It's why we vote for tax breaks for the rich before pay raises for our teachers.

If you're poor, no misdeed should go unpunished. No racist fear should go unchecked. The God Of Wealth has not shown you blessing therefore you're devoid of virtue, and we are content with our Christian (in name only) judgment upon you.

If you're rich, you've been blessed by the God of Wealth, will be bestowed with the obvious holy name of job "creator" and any transgressions in the name of wealth accumulation will be instantly forgiven.

We're a nation of immigrants that claims to worship a poor middle eastern family with a newborn child that needed help one Dec night. But 26 elected state governors would turn that family away saying "Well, they were poor and probably terrorists"

The terrorists hate those refugees as much as they hate the western world. If every nation closes its borders and lets them starve and suffer then we're doing exactly what the terrorists want--just becoming pawns in their strategy and letting barbarians outsmart us.

Moments after an attack we tell ourselves love will overcome, but we only need a couple days to realize that fear, nationalism, and callousness are our defining traits--ironically, the same traits that make the terrorists evil in our eyes. Let that sink in.

The fact of the matter is that we are not worried about American deaths, we have mass shootings on a daily basis with no desire to change it. But we are worried about angering our God of Wealth by allowing poor, dark skinned people to have something they "didn't earn and don't deserve." Be it food, shelter, or even a tiny sense of safety after they've left their entire lives behind as their country burns to the ground.

We tell ourselves "love wins." I wish it would.

--Brian Paul Swenk

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Tuesday, November 10, 2015

A 67 year old woman defends herself from a man with a cigarette

The story below comes from Jim Wright's page. Wright is a freelance writer that lives in Alaska, and writes about contemporary issues and politics with a unique combination of intellectual prowess and bravado.
This story is a perfect example of where my long-standing belief in gun rights starts shading into common sense and practicality.
When presidential candidate Bernie Sanders was questioned on his gun-rights voting record, which seemed more in line with the GOP than the Dems, he explained that he was from a rural state where guns were a way of life, used safely, and did not require the same solutions as urban areas with high crime rates.

Most all of us who grew up in Sparta, NC can empathize with his feelings on the matter. You were much more likely to be hurt or killed in a car or tractor accident than with a gun, even though nearly every house had one. The idea of gun restrictions didn't make sense and aroused the hyper-active fears of totalitarianism.

But that doesn't do anything to solve the problem of our outrageously high rate of daily gun deaths. Or the fact that a gun in the house has a higher probability of killing someone in the house than an intruder.

I've always been pro-gun because of my hometown experience, and I've always tried to be pro-common sense and pro-keep-people-alive. It's becoming harder and harder to simultaneously hold those views lately.

Without further ado, here's the story of a 67 year old lady defending herself with her gun and guy who almost died over a cigarette.


Today's Good Gal With A Gun moment

A man bought a pack of cigarettes in a Murfreesboro, Tennessee, Walmart. He was walking through the crowded parking lot and realized he didn't have a light, so he asked a convenient person - you know, like you do.

That person, 67-year old Sherry McLain, pulled out her gun and threatened to shoot the man dead on the spot.

The man, as you might expect, was somewhat taken aback. In fact, he was terrified, he turned and ran back towards the store. McLain tracked him with her revolver, sweeping numerous other patrons with her muzzle including a 7-year old boy, his mother, and his grandmother who were nearby.

The man ran inside the store and called police.

The police arrived, took the man's statement, looked at the security video which corroborated his story and showed he'd approached the woman no closer than ten feet, talked to witnesses including the woman and her son who'd been swept by McLain's weapon, and arrested Sherry McLain for aggravated assault and reckless endangerment.

McLain is outraged.

"It scared me absolutely to death," said Sherry McLain. "I have never been so afraid of anything in my whole life I don't think. This guy is the bad guy and I'm the one in handcuffs walking away."

I have never been so afraid of anything in my life.

A man asked her a question and she's never been so afraid in her life.

This guy is the bad guy, see? Because that's the world these ammosexuals live in, the one where it's the BAD guy who calls the police, and GOOD guys are the ones who menace others with a deadly weapon in a public parking lot.

"What are we supposed to do if we can't protect ourselves. I'm 67 years old," said McLain.

What has America come to when you can't defend yourself with deadly force from an unarmed, non-threatening guy who asks you for a light? My God, people! What has America come to when you can't just brandish a loaded weapon and endanger others in a public place? Oh the oppression! Oh the tyranny!

I know the Surgeon General says smoking is bad for your health but being executed over it might be taking things a bit too far.

Ask yourself this: What if there were no security cameras to back up this guy's story? Or the cameras weren't good enough to see what was happening? What if there were no witnesses? What if she was all respectable looking and he was disruptable in appearance. What if she was white and he was black? Latino? Some immigrant with a funny accent and a turban? What if this was Florida?

And what if she'd shot this poor bastard down, since she'd never been so afraid in her life?

Without witnesses, without the cameras, without the victim's word, she'd very likely get away with murder.

She would, in point of fact, have been a hero.

Yes indeed, she would have been a big damned hero.

She would have BELIEVED herself a hero, a shining example of the Second Amendment, a good gal with a gun defending truth, justice, and the American way.

--Brian Paul Swenk

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Tuesday, November 3, 2015

My Case for Supporting the Candidacy of Donald Trump

Donald Trump’s candidacy is shaking the foundations of American plutocracy-- why we should cheer him on.

Most of us think Donald Trump’s campaign is the low point for both American politics and American society. And sure, the racism, xenophobia, misogyny, and narcissistic reality show attention tactics do, in many ways, show Americans at our worst. But if you step back, place it in a historical context, and disassociate yourself from Trump representing the worst of us to the world, you can begin to see his candidacy as what we both need and deserve at this moment in time. From there, you can almost begin rooting for Trump, not because you agree with anything he says or think he’ll be a good president, but because watching him shake the plutocratic foundations of our ineffectual government is worth the risk.   

From Watergate to the impeachment of Clinton, and from George “Dubya” to Obama, we’ve slowly lost any idea of what a functioning government should do: move money around to solve societal problems and protect us from foreign invaders. The slow involution of American politics has left us with extremists and demagogues, who, by mandate of their equally extremist constituents, are sent to Washington to hijack the political process through any means necessary. By blocking any effectiveness of the federal government, groups such as the 40 member House Freedom Caucus thereby affirm their worldview that federal government is, in fact, ineffective.   

From the paralyzation of the federal government to the facade of the never-ending campaign spectacle that gives the illusion of choice and issues, Donald Trump’s political sledgehammer is breaking down walls and allowing a new light to enter. At this point, breaking through the carefully crafted political “reality” that is presented to us by the establishment of Republicans and Democrats will not be painless. This political facade was created not just for overall public control, but to allow us to remain ignorantly blissful of the dirty, corrupt, and, if we’re to be honest, racist motivations of institutional power.

Exposing inherent racism and nationalism is not a novel concept. But creating a space for it to be gregariously expressed, as Trump has, has not happened since the 1968 and 1972 presidential campaigns of segregationist George Wallace (respects paid to Pat Buchanan, of course). While remnants of Wallace-style outward racism remained steadfast throughout the southern United States, the country, as a whole, told itself it had moved into a “post-racial” reality. Through the 80s and 90s, we believed our inherent goodness transformed outward racism into the anodyne process of fiddling with government diversity statistics in the name of “affirmative action.” Or that we somehow grew into dealing with broader issues such as the drug and crime epidemic. We even reaffirmed our post-racial status with popular entertainment such as The Cosby Show--if African-Americans didn’t want to work their way up to upper-middle class comfort, then it was their own fault.    

What seemed to be enlightened growth on the outside was anything but that on the inside. After Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the southern segregationists, who were mostly Democratic, dissociated themselves from the party. In one of the smarter political moves of the century, Nixon made a backroom deal with Strom Thurmond at the Miami GOP convention in 1968 to fold them into the Republican party, thereby guaranteeing him the presidency. “It took two election cycles to convert the ‘Solid South,’” wrote William Greider on the event,” but Nixon and GOP apparatchiks made it clear with private assurances that Republicans would discreetly retire their historic commitment to civil rights.”

While as a nation we were celebrating mass-marketing campaigns of the 1980s that felt hip and inclusive, the southern segregationists moved to the back rooms of government and focused not on simply repealing the Civil Rights Act, but on slowly dismantling it piece by piece under the euphemism of “states’ rights.” Community law enforcement practices aside, the federally mandated mandatory minimums under Clinton, our so-called “first black president,” (further affirmation of “post-racial”) produced the blatantly racist mass-incarceration epidemic. And one only has to look back a few months to the sustained GOP-lead attacks on the Planned Parenthood funding to find current whittlings of any type of assistance to the poor, predominately black communities. It is no secret that Planned Parenthood is directly responsible for abortion rates being so low today--free birth control works! But the real ire of today’s white nationalists is the idea that poor black women might be getting taxpayer-funded medical assistance they “did not earn.” The false notion that PP is “selling baby parts” is the perfect bait and switch to further reduce funding for people in our poorest communities.

Trump has done much more than root out the remaining segregationists, now referred to as “nationalists,” with his anti-immigration rhetoric. He’s also been the wedge to crack open the growing schism between the rural Southern conservatives and the corporate elites who’ve always controlled the Republican party and solely benefited from their anti-tax, anti-regulation platform. This populist disillusionment and anger, which started slowly with the tea-party libertarians from the Bush Wall Street bailout years and quickly gained momentum with the election of Obama, has now taken hold as the socially conservative faithful have realized they’ve been sold up the river, so to speak, by Republican candidates who promised social conservatism but instead delivered corporate plutocracy. The answer to the decades old question of “Why do poor, rural whites consistently vote against their predominant and obvious financial interests?” is not only being exposed but is starting to unravel. Again, Greider writes about speaking with Democrat and staff director of the House Appropriations Committee, Scott Lilly: “‘The problem,’ Lilly said, ‘is that this latter group has almost nothing in common with the country club wing.… The country clubbers don’t care about prayer in the public schools, gun rights, stopping birth control, abortion and immigration.’ On the other hand, common folks don’t worry over marginal tax rates, capital formation, or subsidies for major corporations. ‘If they ever fully understood that their more prosperous party brethren were contemplating deep cuts in Medicare and Medicaid to pay for those policies, they would be in open rebellion,’ said Lilly”

It’s hard to imagine Trump not being conscious of the implications of every move he makes. But one has to wonder if he fully grasps the electoral outcomes if he continues to split these social conservatives from their country-clubbing bedmates. At the worst, these disenfranchised voters will primary moderate republicans with candidates willing to bring the federal government to its knees, such as the suddenly infamous House Freedom Caucus. But with an admittedly unfounded sense of optimism, we can hope that many in the Republican base will start voting for their own middle-class economic interests. As we’ve seen in this rather fascinating race for 2016, populism works both ways, as does freedom of speech, and by rooting out the hidden racist motivations of the backroom Republican establishment, Trump’s candidacy is showing us who we really are. If we have any chance of growing out of this corporate plutocracy, a little self-reflecting catharsis won’t hurt a bit.  

--Brian Paul Swenk

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